In 2013, Marielle Petranoff studied abroad in Santiago, Chile. Her time there was organized by IFSA-Butler, a study abroad provider that has sent over 50,000 students abroad since its founding in 1988, and currently operates programs in over 19 countries.
In ‘Questioning Authority on Santiago’s Streets,’ Marielle shares how conversations outside the classroom helped her better understand Chilean culture – particularly the culture of student protesting. She shares:
“Student protests are an integral part of Chilean life … [and] the right to publicly assemble and peacefully protest is fiercely protected… [At home], my friends and I bemoaned the state of student debt…and became enraged over human rights violations, yet rarely did more than discuss it amongst ourselves. In Chile, it seemed that everyone recognized the system as being broken and fought to change it.”
On Wednesday, April 3, 2013, my Chilean History and Contemporary Society class – along with our professor, Pedro – went for a walk.
We met at a subway station in a part of Santiago that few of us had ever ventured into. As per my closely held and extremely foreign habit of arriving early, which is to say on time, I was among the first of my classmates to arrive. I emerged from the unfamiliar station and wandered along the platform until I spotted my professor. A few minutes later the rest of the class joined us and he explained a little bit of what we were about to see.
Class that day was a walk through the neighborhoods of Brasil and Yungay. Part of the massive post-independence construction period of the mid 1800s, the neighborhoods are characterized by their neo-gothic architecture, stone avenues, and rampant street art. They are a mostly residential part of Santiago and offer little for tourists other than the slightly dizzying feeling that comes from seeing brilliant murals and graffiti on crumbling 19th century architecture. But it was because of that juxtaposition that Pedro brought us there. We had seen La Moneda and the Cathedral of Santiago; we had seen the great works of militaries and humanity in the old fort walls and the immigrant patchwork of La Vega market; we had seen the pristine condominiums and hyper-americanization of Las Condes; and now it was time to see what all of those things looked like mashed together in one neighborhood that simultaneously respected and rejected its origins.
“A painting caught my eye: A female figure in red, black and white; a dancer reaching up towards the sky, body arched to the side, leg in motion… I asked my professor if he knew who she was. Turns out, she was an icon.”
The buildings of Brasil and Yungay range from steel-doored workshops to 18th Century mansions chopped up into more manageable pieces. Tucked in between are adobe houses that look like they could have been haphazardly thrown together by the Conquistadors more than 400 years ago. Liberally spread across their walls, doors, and windows are the markings of a hundred artists – amateurs and masters – in both murals and hastily scrawled tags. It is almost beautiful. Pieces of it are stunning, but overall, the neighborhoods are repetitive and at times, decrepit.The first time you see it you are surprised by the dragon sprawled across three sides of a building right next to delicate cornices, but by the tenth piece of art, it is easier to ignore. Towards the end of the walk, most people had begun to trail behind the professor chatting, waiting for the next stop, wondering what their host moms had made them for lunch.
Just as my own attention was wandering, a painting caught my eye: A female figure in red, black and white; a dancer reaching up towards the sky, body arched to the side, leg in motion. She was painted against a yellow wall, bold and intentional, surrounded by the blurry and indefinite edges of the universal graffitied slogans you are just as likely to see in New York as in Santiago. However, as striking as the figure was, what caught my eye was the small inscription under her bare foot: Claudia López 1969-1998. I took a picture. Then, because I happened to be next to him, and because I wondered if he might know why this dancer was memorialized on a wall of graffiti, I asked my professor if he knew who she was. Turns out, she was an icon.
Claudia López was a student, dancer and anarchist. On September 11, 1998, she participated in an anti-government protest commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Pinochet military takeover and there she was shot in the back by the police. Hours later, she was dead. Her death turned her into a symbol of the anarchist rebellion, one that is still powerful today. Students protesting in the streets of Santiago know her name; she has buildings named after her. And she also has this small mural dedicated to her in Yungay. In my five months of studying in Chile, I only heard her name once. Had I not asked, I likely would never have known.
Claudia’s story might seem shocking, enraging, tragic, or strange, but in Chile, her story is inspiring. Student protests are an integral part of Chilean life; I did not meet a Santiaguino who didn’t have at least one story about running away from police at the end of a protest. The right to publicly assemble and peacefully protest is fiercely protected, likely because of the years that the right was denied to them under the Pinochet dictatorship. Marches that shut down the main artery of downtown traffic are commonplace, held roughly every other Thursday. They are organized by students and other groups, approved by the government, and guarded by civil rights watchers who ensure that there is not another Claudia Lopez.
Certainly, to many, these protests are a nuisance. I heard countless people complain about them, particularly when they resulted in a subway station being shut down or a bus line not running, and sometimes when I was late to class and struggling to fight my way through the swarms of people traveling to the march, I was annoyed, too. In just one semester of study, 7 of my classes were disrupted by sit-ins (called tomas), strikes (paros) or marches. For a few weeks, my Mapudungun (the language of the largest indigenous group of Chile) course was taught in an office building and only to foreign exchange students as the rest of the class and the building it was in were en toma. Students had taken over the campus and wouldn’t allow faculty or staff to enter the buildings until demands for higher academic standards were met. I went to the campus one day to see what it was like and was surprised to find that past the barricade of desk chairs it was, in fact, a very orderly takeover. To enter the building you had to sign in and leave a form of identification at the door. There were rosters that outlined who was to bring food, guard the doors, sleep, and work the “check-in” desk. Signs proclaimed that this was a “dry campus” and no alcohol would be tolerated. Overall, it was an incredibly civil form of civil disobedience, and I was impressed. Later on in my stay, the carabineros – police – would storm a similar sit-in to forcibly remove the students. The president of that university would condemn the carabineros and defend the student’s right to peaceful disruption.
“Very few pieces of street art were created simply as art or for others’ viewing pleasure; rather, almost all of them told a story and announced a call to action.”
That mindset was something I had never encountered before; in my hometown protesters were seen as occasionally necessary, but often overly radical, disruptive, or foolish. My friends and I bemoaned the state of student debt, complained about our government’s inability to function, and became enraged over human rights violations, yet rarely did more than discuss the topics amongst ourselves. In Chile, it seemed that everyone recognized the system as being broken and fought to change it. It was shocking – invigorating – to see a group of people attempting to fix (with varying degrees of success) where we only theorized. Yes, there were those in Chile who thought that it was foolish, disruptive, or overly radical, but as a whole even they respected the right to actively disagree with policy and try to change it. That amicable dichotomy between those who supported the established system – the beautiful colonial homes with their crumbling walls – and the radicals who decorated their facades with their slogans is in all of Chile. It is perhaps Chile’s defining characteristic, yet something not mentioned in tourist guides.
In the end, that walk through Brasil and Yungay ended up being the most educational part of my study abroad. I learned to connect the graffiti with the country’s history, particularly the history of student protesting, and I also realized that very few pieces of street art were created simply as art or for others’ viewing pleasure; rather, almost all of them told a story and announced a call to action, you just had to know in what language. Some were simple enough to read; others required conversation or consultation with a local. But now I know that every scrap of splattered paint on a wall has something to say, and the only way to find out what that is is by asking.
The Institute for Study Abroad, Butler University (IFSA-Butler) is a nonprofit organization with over 90 study abroad programs in Europe, Latin America, Asia Pacific and the Middle East. We aim to immerse, to challenge and to inspire our students to develop global perspectives and a thirst for new adventures. Where will your next adventure be? More information about IFSA-Butler can be found at www.ifsa-butler.org.
More culture. Less shock.